Friday, June 3, 2022

Greedflation: Does economics need a reset, reboot, and rethink?

Lydia DePillis, Is ‘Greedflation’ Rewriting Economics, or Do Old Rules Still Apply? NYTimes, June 3, 2022.

Since prices started to escalate a year ago, politicians and economists have seized on inflation to tell their preferred story about what went wrong, and what policies would bring it back into line. Some say it’s very straightforward: Supply and demand, Economics 101.

“There’s simply a lot of cash out there,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist for the accounting firm RSM US, referring to the several trillion dollars in pandemic stimulus that’s filtered into the economy since early 2020. “The competition for those goods is up and that’s sending prices up, whether we’re talking about getting a Nissan Sentra or a seat on an American Airlines flight.”

The White House and progressive organizations, however, say wait a minute: This time is different. In a time of extraordinary disruption, they contend, increasingly dominant corporations are taking the opportunity to jack up prices more than they otherwise could, which is squeezing consumers and supercharging inflation. Or “greedflation,” as the hypothesis has come to be known.

The argument comports with the Biden administration’s focus on the ills of economic concentration. Congressional Democrats have run with the idea, introducing bills that would impose a temporary “excess profits tax” on companies that charge prices they deem unreasonably high, or simply ban those high prices altogether. Critics, including the nation’s largest business lobby, deride these efforts as based on a “conspiracy theory” and a “flimsy argument.”

So what’s really going on?

It’s hard to tease out. A pandemic, a trade war, a land war, huge government spending, and a global economy that’s become vastly more integrated might be too complex for traditional macroeconomic theory to explain. Josh Bivens, research director at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, thinks that’s a good reason to revisit what the discipline thought it had figured out.

“When I hear stories about an overheating labor market, I don’t think about falling real wages, and yet we have falling real wages,” Dr. Bivens said. Nor is the rise in profits typical when unemployment is so low. “The idea that ‘there’s nothing to see here’ — there’s everything to see here! It’s totally different.”

When thinking about greedflation, it’s helpful to break it down into three questions: Are companies charging more than necessary to cover their rising costs? If so, is that enough to meaningfully accelerate inflation? And is all this happening because large companies have market power they didn’t decades ago?

And economics is not organized to sort things out:

The relationship of profits, inflation and market power will be tough for economists to nail down. High-quality government data will take time to produce. Moreover, it requires a melding of micro- and macroeconomic disciplines that haven’t had to synthesize so many factors simultaneously, with little historical precedent.

There's more at the link.

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